The Shortsighted Debate on Syria

Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Alexandros Michailidis via Shutterstock)

by Paul R. Pillar

President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the border region in northeast Syria is exceptionally rare in drawing fire from Republicans at least as much as from Democrats who oppose him on a multitude of other issues. Because of this rarity, the political contours of the debate threaten to overshadow the substance. Democrats, outraged by many other things Trump has done, may be tempted to throw this issue into the bin of reasons Trump must go and to be leery of expressing support for the president lest this support detract, amid an impeachment inquiry, from all those other reasons. Republicans may welcome an opportunity to demonstrate that they are not slavish apologists for Trump.

The reported procedure through which Trump reached the decision is hard to defend. It appeared to be an impulsive act, reached after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that was not vetted through the relevant policy bureaucracy and caught much of that bureaucracy by surprise. Such a broken method of presidential decision-making has produced bad policy in the past (not just in the current administration) and will continue to produce bad policy in the future as long as Trump uses it. But the procedure is not the same as the substance. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

The flurry of criticism of the president’s decision has had an absolutist quality that has tended to ignore qualifications to arguments against the decision and to leave unstated many valid arguments in the opposite direction, even if they do not come through in Trump’s blurts and tweets. The criticism disregards how the war in Syria has always been a difficult policy problem in which there are no good options and the task has been to identify the least bad option. Most of all, critics fail to spell out the long-term implications of keeping U.S. troops there.

Probably the most legitimate criticism of Trump’s decision has centered on the theme of leaving in the lurch Kurdish militias who played a major role in fighting to eliminate the “caliphate” of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS), and of possibly discouraging other nonstate actors from cooperating with the United States in the future. It should be recognized, however, that the Kurds did not do what they did on the battlefield as an act of generosity to the United States. Trump captured only a portion of what needs to be noted in this regard with his tweet saying that the Kurds were “paid massive amounts of money and equipment” for their fighting. The Kurds also had a direct interest in defeating ISIS, and they have been playing their own political-military game regarding their relationship with Syrian Arabs. Yes, the Kurds have been historically screwed, as a large nationality that has never gotten its own nation-state. But the original sin as far as modern western statesmanship is concerned occurred a century ago as the Ottoman Empire was carved up. The Syria of today is not a place where that historical wrong can be righted.

The idea of a U.S. president swinging into action in response to a phone call with Erdogan is understandably repugnant given that Turkish president’s repugnant authoritarian tendencies. But the Turkish sensitivity about the Syrian Kurds is by no means limited to Erdogan. A direct organizational connection links the Kurdish militia in the region in question, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), to the Turkish Kurdish resistance movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has spilled much Turkish blood over more than three decades through international terrorism and insurgency in southeastern Turkey. Americans who are quick to condemn anyone with the slightest “link” to anti-U.S. terrorist groups would be just as hardline toward the Syrian Kurds if placed in Erdogan’s situation.

ISIS is not out even if it is down, but with the physical caliphate erased from the map, the remaining counterterrorist tasks are not primarily ones that troops on the ground can accomplish. They tend to be more ones in which a foreign military presence is more of a provocation than a help. Any possible resurrection of the caliphate would be at least as much a matter for the Syrian regime and other players in the immediate vicinity to tackle as it would be for the United States.

The argument that a withdrawal of a thousand or so U.S. troops from Syria forfeits U.S. “leverage” tends to conflict with the argument from the same quarters that this military presence is easily sustainable because it is small. What exactly is this troop contingent expected to accomplish in supposedly leveraging other actors in the Syrian mess who have larger military contingents present?

This question is related to the further argument that Russia and Iran will be the “winners” from Trump’s withdrawal decision. Leaving aside the implicit assumption that U.S. interests are zero-sum with the interests of those states, the argument pays no attention to the dynamics of Russia’s and Iran’s relations with the Assad regime in Damascus. That regime will remain more, not less, dependent on its foreign allies to the extent that some Syrian territory remains under the control of U.S.-backed separatists.

Critics of the decision to withdraw seldom address the long-term question of how their recommended course of action ends. The vision seems to be a permanent U.S. protectorate of a Kurdish-controlled part of a still-divided Syria, with a never-ending American troop presence that doesn’t really leverage anyone but instead functions as a trip-wire that raises the risk of war with Russia, Iran, or even fellow NATO member Turkey. A secure future for Syrian Kurds requires an internationally supported resolution of the Syrian civil war. Those wishing to criticize Trump over Syria ought to focus not on the troop withdrawal but instead on failing to participate fully in the relevant multilateral diplomacy rather than leaving that function to Iran, Russia, and Turkey.

Also seldom asked is how important events inside Syria ultimately are to U.S. interests. In fact, they are less important to the United States than they are, for various historical and geopolitical reasons, to Iran, Russia, Turkey, and of course the Syrian regime. Post-Ottoman Kurds have been without their own state for a century, Assads have been in power in Damascus for half a century, and Russia and Iran have been Syrian allies for decades. And the United States has nonetheless managed.

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. A dismantlement of the Syria-based Kurdish infrastructure may also well entail the cessation of smuggling of Syrian oil to Israel.

  2. This article, like so many, makes no reference to the international law governing military conflicts. The U.S. military’s presence in Syria is unlawful. Its scanty legal justification is that: [i] we were asked by the Iraqi government to help defend against the Islamic State; [ii] part of the Islamic State forces were located in Syria; and [iii] Syria was “unwilling or unable” to defeat the Islamic State; and [iv] therefore, the U.S. was justified in invading Syria to attack the Islamic State forces.

    However, one may not permissibly claim that Syria was “unable” to defeat the Islamic State whilst the U.S. simultaneously waged a proxy war against Syria by arming and supplying anti-Syrian government militants, for which Congress expressly appropriated funding. The equitable Doctrine of Unclean Hands — which applies in international law — prevents that result. See extended discussion of the Doctrine’s applicability in a wartime setting by Judge Schwegel in Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States of America), I.C.J. Reports (1986), pp. 272, 382-384, ¶¶ 268-272.

    It is a sad commentary on the state of journalism in the U.S. when the governing law is almost never mentioned in the context of our foreign military adventures. Truly sad.

  3. I usually agree with Mr. Pillar’s analyses. But here I pause. He blithely says that the ISIS Caliphate is gone and therefore the role of US (or any) armed forces to suppress that organization is less important, impliedly unnecessary…and perhaps even provocative. But what happens if 10,000 Islamic State ex-combatants are released from Kurdish-run prison camps (because the Kurds need all their manpower, including prison guards, to defend against a Turkish invasion)? And if thousands of other ISIS members who have been keeping a low profile in place reemerge? It’s that kind of armed manpower which builds or RE-builds zones of control. A partial version of the Caliphate could be resurrected.

    I think the real issue is whether we think we can risk the re-emergence of an ISIS semi-state in Syria. Would it impact us…or mainly Europe…or our Gulf Arab and Jordan allies? If we are worried about that, and if we are again going to betray the Kurds (for about the third time in the last half century), then the obvious (if noxious) answer would be to facilitate the Assad regime in re-taking control of those former ISIS areas, rather than letting a total vacumn occur.

    Mr. Pillar has one thing right : his lack of sentimentality about the Kurds. They allied with us against ISIS because they saw that, in eliminating ISIS, they could gain Syrian territory which (in their heart of hearts) they hoped to include eventually in a greater Kurdish state. Ethnic statehood is a legitimate aspiration on their part. But if our betrayal of the Kurds is a shameful mistake, it is not because our goals were ultimately identical with theirs–they were not. It’s because this sudden betrayal sends a future message to other potential allies that they cannot trust the US not to “throw them under the bus” as soon as their convenience to us is exhausted.

  4. There’s possibility that Trump has given Erdogan the green light for attacking the Kurds and in return he’s gotten a promise from Erdogan to distant itself from the Russians and their Arms and from Iran as part of his Max-pressure strategy against Iran.
    Leaving the Kurds out to dry is not the first time for the US. Reagan and Bush Sr left the Mojahedins in Afghanistan out to dry after they successfully drove the Russians out of that country. Well we know what ensued from that decision. The second time was capturing and imprisonments of 20,000 of Saddam’s army personnel. Once the US couldn’t manage the large numbers of prisoners in Iraq, the trained army personnel were released from the jail forming a formidable army of their own which was hi-jacked by a highly educated Sunni cleric by the name of Al-Baghdad! Once again we know what happened to this group after they called themselves as ISIS or Daesh locally!
    Of course the situation with the Kurds is very much different. The region of ME is known for its multi-cultural, multi-ethnicity and tribal population of nearly 300 million people. The very large community of Kurds are spread out in a fairly large area between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The Kurds have a tendency to go it alone seeking for an autonomous state of their own within that region which is very challenging for the regional countries if they should allow it to happen. This is mostly due to the fact that the ME in its entirety has had many bad experiences with the ethnic divisions mostly done by the Brits for the past couple of centuries.
    Unfortunately, since the invasion of Iraq by the US the NON-IRANIAN Kurds had aligned themselves with Israel and the US against Iraqi central government over the oil and Bashar’s regime in Syria. So the Kurds have put all their eggs in one basket with no regional friends. Now that they’ve been betrayed by the US and left alone against the Turkish arm forces no one will help them. The longer term effect of the current situation is unknown for the NON-IRANIAN Kurds but on the short term it could become one of the worst humanitarian crisis in the modern history.

  5. Trump’s real reason to withdraw American troops from the ME is to leave Israel on its own among hostile Muslim neighbours.

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